Finland’s war on fake news may be crucial to Western Democracy

Finland's war on fake news may be crucial to Western Democracy
Students in Valentina Uitto, Finland(photo by CNN)

Finland launched anti-fake news initiative in 2014 two years before Russia meddled in the US elections, aimed at teaching residents, students, journalists and politicians how to counter false information designed to sow division.

The initiative is just one layer of a multi-pronged, cross-sector approach the country is taking to prepare citizens of all ages for the complex digital landscape of today and tomorrow.

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The Nordic country, which shares an 832-mile border with Russia, is acutely aware of what’s at stake if it doesn’t.

Toivanen, the chief communications specialist for the prime minister’s office, said it is difficult to pinpoint the exact number of misinformation operations to have targeted the country in recent years, but most play on issues like immigration, the European Union, or whether Finland should become a full member of NATO (Russia is not a fan).

As the trolling ramped up in 2015, President Sauli Niinisto called on every Finn to take responsibility for the fight against false information. A year later, Finland brought in American experts to advise officials on how to recognize fake news, understand why it goes viral and develops strategies to fight it. The education system was also reformed to emphasize critical thinking.

Media literacy across Europe

Finland is ranked first out of 35 countries in a study measuring resilience to the post-truth phenomenon. Although it’s difficult to measure the results in real-time, the approach appears to be working, and now other countries are looking to Finland as an example of how to win the war on misinformation.

“What we want our students to do is … before they like or share in the social media they think twice – who has written this? Where has it been published?

“Can I find the same information from another source?” Kari Kivinen, director of Helsinki French-Finnish School and former secretary-general of the European Schools, told CNN.

Polluting the internet

According to Jessikka Aro, “Facebook, Twitter, Google/YouTube are enablers of Russian trolls which  should really  be regulated.”

The journalist with Finland’s public broadcaster YLE, who has faced a barrage of abuse for her work investigating Russian interference, long before it was linked to the 2016 US elections says, “Facebook, Twitter and Google are all signatories to the European Commission’s code of practice against disinformation.

She also told CNN that they have taken steps ahead of the EU elections to increase transparency on their platforms, including making EU-specific political advertisement libraries publicly available, working with third-party fact-checkers to identify misleading election-related content, and cracking down on fake accounts.

A never-ending game

Perhaps the biggest sign that Finland is winning the war on fake news is the fact that other countries are seeking to copy its blueprint. Representatives from a slew of EU states, along with Singapore, have come to learn from Finland’s approach to the problem.

The race is on to figure out a fix after authorities linked Russian groups to misinformation campaigns targeting Catalonia’s independence referendum and Brexit, as well as recent votes in France and Germany.

Germany has already put a law in place to find tech platforms that fail to remove “obviously illegal” hate speech, while France passed a law last year that bans fake news on the internet during election campaigns.

Some critics have argued that both pieces of legislation jeopardize free speech. Russia denied interference in all of these instances.

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